Each year, 31 teams in the National Football League go home empty-handed. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, it's been a common theme to end the season for over a decade now. Yet for a season that showed so much promise after an 11-0 start, watching the Steelers crash and burn to end their 2020 campaign emphasized the usual empty feeling experienced.
Like every other team watching from home this year, the Steelers now look to the 2021 offseason in order to fix whatever issues encountered. For Pittsburgh, issues were littered across the entire depth chart and coaching staff.
The Steelers have already begun to check things off their own "to-do" list, starting with cleaning some of their house. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and secondary coach Tom Bradley were relieved of their duties last week.
Also, while not official quite yet, the team plans to promote Matt Canada to offensive coordinator.
Ahead of Pittsburgh is perhaps one of the biggest offseasons in recent memory. While many will argue the time has come and gone, the Steelers look to keep their Super Bowl open for just one more season. To separate hopes from reality, the team will have to do the following three things (in no order):
Create Cap Space
According to OverTheCap, the Steelers are projected to be nearly $22 million above the cap heading into the 2021 season. Next season's cap number is estimated to drop by 11% to $176 million based on projected loss in revenue by OverTheCap, although nothing is official quite yet.
However much that special cap number may be, the Steelers have quite the road ahead of them to be in cap compliance by the first official day of the new league year on March 17.
Much has been made about Ben Roethlisberger's cap hit of $41 million, and truthfully, that's an astronomical number. Roethlisberger currently has the highest cap hit out of the entire league heading into 2021, per Spotrac.
The good news? That number can be alleviated in two ways, with Roethlisberger either retiring or having his contract extended to spread his money out even further down the line. Roethlisberger retiring would save the Steelers $19 million, while a contract extension could net Pittsburgh $14.3 million in cap relief for the upcoming season.
While Roethlisberger would be a good start, the team will also have to make tough decisions on highly-paid players such as Joe Haden ($7 million would be saved), David DeCastro ($8.75 million would be saved) and more.
However it's done, the Steelers need to again perform cap space magic to not only be in compliance but to potentially free up enough money to sign a handful of players in free agency if so desired.
Fix the Offensive Line
Perhaps this objective falls in line with freeing up cap space, but one of Pittsburgh's biggest issues rests within the offensive line. Simply put, one of the league's best units of big men up front simply have fallen off.
The likes of Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro appeared as shadows of their former selves, while names such as Al Villanueva and Matt Feiler consistently failed to perform their assignments on the offensive line. With Zach Banner coming off a torn ACL and Chukwuma Okorafor netting mixed reviews, it appears everybody but Kevin Dotson has some sort of question mark heading into next season.
As it sits, the Steelers have six offensive linemen ready to hit free agency: Villanueva, Feiler, Banner, Jerald Hawkins, Danny Isidora and J.C. Hasseauer.
While I'm not too big into reading/deciphering tweets, this tidbit from Banner may suggest some good news for those want him in black and gold next year:
There's a lot of different puzzle pieces that can move around, yet a starting line of Villanueva-Feiler-Pouncey-DeCastro-Okorafor simply cannot return to the trenches in 2021.
While some hope and pray the Steelers land running back Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, the offensive line largely remains a bigger need than running back at pick number 24, and I'm of the belief the Steelers take a big man in the later parts of the first round. Perhaps free agency could also be of assistance in replacing a piece or two, depending on who leaves.
While I think Villanueva/Feiler are more than likely gone, the likes of Pouncey/DeCastro will also be interesting to monitor. Although nothing has been confirmed, Pouncey very much appeared to be on the brink of retirement following Pittsburgh's early exit in the playoffs, and DeCastro's level of play has simply plummeted, injury or not.
Pittsburgh's offensive line is set to see a great overhaul this offseason, and it's a much-needed one at that.
Extend T.J. Watt
This may be a tad difficult given the team's current financial situation, but I want to make this sentiment very clear: Do not let T.J. Watt even sniff life outside of Pittsburgh. With Watt set to hit free agency after next season, the time has come to make Watt one of the highest paid players in the league.
Watt has established himself as one of the premier defenders in the NFL, as his ability to rush the quarterback among other skills under his belt has thrown his name into consideration for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year two years in a row. Whether Watt actually brings home hardware this season should make no difference: The Wisconsin product deserves a blank check.
2020 saw Watt achieve the following:
- Won Team MVP for second straight season
- Led the league in sacks
- Led the league in tackles for loss
- Led the league in QB hits
- One sack shy of single-season franchise record
- Named First Team AP All-Pro
If you're curious as to what a potential payday for Watt could look like, I put together a piece last May to guestimate what Watt may bring in. After another stellar season, Watt looks to easily break my projections.
At the end of the day, T.J. Watt is the motor of one of the league's best defenses. Losing Watt would be devastating on multiple fronts, and although that is more than a year away, the Steelers need to do everything in their power to ensure he's in black and gold for the long haul.